Proper 7, Year B - 375th Anniversary of Old Donation Church
A couple of weeks ago, I watched an inattentive taxi driver hit a bicyclist a block away as I was running down the sidewalk. He got scraped up, but he didn’t seem to be severely injured. I hung around until the cops and the EMTs came to check him out. But it led me to reflect on the dangers we meet just in daily living – whether it’s going to work, doing errands, or taking a stroll. I’ve had a few interesting experiences out running over the years. I’ve tripped and fallen, run into a post, been grabbed by a mentally ill person, and seen plenty of other people in trouble. I’ve heard kids scream abuses at each other waiting for their school to open – the same kind of behavior the whole world can see in a YouTube video about the bullying of a bus monitor. I see people sleeping on park benches or the ground all the time. I’ve also seen some pretty amazing sunrises, drenching rain and blinding windstorms, as well as the occasional new snowfall. In spite of the hazards, most of us still keep on going out there.
Sometimes the challenges are a lot harder. I have a friend who just had a beloved uncle die. This is the third or fourth close relative she’s lost in recent months, along with several other friends, some quite young. Her losses are painful and hard, because she’s been so close to all these people. The only way to avoid that kind of pain is to distance yourself, and that brings its own kind of suffering.
We can stay engaged in life, or we can get so fearful that we go home and hide under the covers. Most of us are afraid of something – we quake in our boots at the thought of speaking up about some injustice, or confronting an abusive co-worker, or challenging a racist joke. Many people are fearful about the economy, or worried about their health or their children. Our kids are afraid of the bullies at school, not fitting in, or how they’re going to survive all the demands we put on them. The society around us seems to be especially vulnerable right now – politicians and media personalities can generate fear pretty easily, especially when many Americans are afraid of strangers, including the ones in their own neighborhoods. Fear is preventing Congress from working collaboratively, fear is driving all the vitriol about immigration, and fear keeps many from discovering that Muslims share many of the same values as Jews and Christians. Fear is also keeping us from facing the ultimate emptiness of systems built on ever-increasing consumption.
What kind of fear do you wrestle with?
Both the stories we just heard are about dealing with fear.
David has a healthy sense of his own ability – and perhaps his vulnerability. After all, he’s dealt with lions and bears – this giant of a man named Goliath shouldn’t be any more intimidating. Saul is a bit more worried, and pushes David to wear the king’s own armor, but after David tries it on and discovers how unfamiliar and unwieldy all of it is, he takes it off. He knows his own strength – the gifts God has given him – and he makes the decision to meet Goliath just as he is. He meets a highly insulting opponent, but David doesn’t seem to be afraid of the words and curses. Goliath says, ‘hubba, hubba, come on, I’m going to feed you to the birds!’ And David responds by saying, ‘I can see all your weapon systems. I simply come in the name of God – and God’s justice will prevail.’ It does – and “how the mighty are fallen.”
Jesus and his friends are trying to get to the other side of the lake, but in the midst of that dark and stormy night they’re wrestling with their own storm of fear. Jesus is asleep, at rest on the bosom of the deep. His friends are terrified, and they wake him up and accuse him of not caring about mortal danger. What does Jesus do? He invokes peace, even to the natural world that’s terrified his friends. His usual modus operandi is about bringing peace, even if there’s fear and suffering on the way – for his goal and destination is a world of peace.
Even in the story of David and Goliath, that’s the aim – to find peace by getting beyond the bully’s ability to intimidate, threaten, and dominate.
You’ve got an example in your history here – with the famous (or infamous) Grace Sherwood. Her trial and dunking as a witch was this community’s attempt to make life more peaceful by piling a load of fault and anxiety on one person, who seems to have had quite an ability to use her own resources to resist. She sued several people who slandered her, and won. When somebody finally did manage to get a judgment against her, she seems to have had enough standing in the community to avoid death, and she evidently didn’t stay in jail forever. There were at least some people in the community who saw the image of God in her, and eventually God’s peace prevailed.
The things and the people we are most afraid of are seldom worth the effort. God has given us resources in abundance to respond to the fears that consume us. There’s something very pointed in the beginning of the gospel story – when Jesus says, “let’s go across,” it says that he leaves with his friends “just as he was.” Like David, he doesn’t put on somebody else’s armor. He goes with what he is. Like his charge to the folks he sends out two by two, he travels light. He has all he needs – today we might say he had all his wits about him and peace in his heart. His ability to sleep through the storm wasn’t a matter of avoiding reality, it was knowledge of his belovedness in God’s eyes and trust that he and his friends would be able to respond to whatever confronted them.
David does something similar. When Saul questions David’s capacity, saying ‘you’re just a boy, and this guy has been in the boxing ring for years,’ David responds by talking about the lions and bears he’s been dealing with for years. There’s an echo of it in the Wizard of Oz (and this story of David is its source), when Dorothy, the Tin Man, and Scarecrow deal with their fear in the forest by chanting, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” believing that together they will be able to deal with whatever comes.
We can survive the storm in the night. We can engage the bullies and tyrants and deceivers. We can do it when we remember that we are well loved, and that whatever happens, the creator and source of new life is already at work, helping new life emerge again. We can do it when we remember that we never go alone – we, too, have a company of friends, even if some of them fall asleep at inopportune times. Jesus sleeps in this gospel scene, and his friends sleep in the garden of Gethsemane. Have you slept in exhaustion or in confidence?
Old Donation has a very long history – times of fear, sleeping of both kinds, and of discovering new life. You are still finding life here – and you’re still spreading new life to the community around you. I would pray, however, that you choose dunking in the cause of new life (baptism), or the kind of drenching that comes from braving storms at sea, rather than throwing neighbors into the drink to see if they drown. Make new and lively Christians here, help them discover what God has given them, and then go with them just as you are, to damp down the fear each one of us will undoubtedly find.
God is with us, we never go alone, the storm doesn’t last forever, and there will be peace at the last.
 Mark 6:7-13; Luke 10:1-11